Revved Up

What do newspaper stories and NASCAR have in common? Sponsors.

If you are a faithful and careful reader of The Commercial Appeal, as I am, you probably noticed something new on the front page of the Sunday business section.

Near the bottom of the page in the September 30th edition, under a five-column headline, was a collection of business news "briefs" or short stories about commercial real estate called "Done Deals." What was unusual was the green logo of Boyle Investment Company, the venerable Memphis real estate company. Above the word Boyle, along with the web address and phone number, were the words "Sponsored by."

In the interest of accuracy I have reproduced the words in the miniscule type size in which they appeared in the CA. In case you have dropped your reading glasses, the words were "sponsored by." There was nothing to differentiate the stories, headline, and sponsorship from the "unsponsored" news on the rest of the business pages.

The briefs were innocuous enough and did not even mention Boyle (which also advertises in this magazine). Still, the CA has broken new ground. News is now being sponsored by businesses whose words and images used to be identified as advertising — and separated from news stories.

"I am not aware of this being done anywhere else," said Robert F. Levey, who holds the Hardin Chair of Excellence in the Department of Journalism at the University of Memphis. "It strikes me as unusual and it strikes me as a slippery slope. News columns should never be for sale or for lease."

Is it only a matter of time until we see Tiger basketball stories sponsored by Harold Byrd and Bank of Bartlett, casino stories sponsored by Harrah's, or Geoff Calkins' column sponsored by Corey B. Trotz? Newspaper stories and columns could someday be dressed up with logos like NASCAR drivers and vehicles.

In the brave new world of journalism, anything and everything is for sale or apparently soon will be. Advertisers are always looking for new and different ways to get their message and brand out in an increasingly cluttered media world. Sources at the CA say there are concerns among some reporters about an upcoming series of stories about Memphis and global business and a sponsorship by FedEx.

"The Commercial Appeal, like most newspapers these days, is looking for ways to monetize content," said editor Chris Peck. "This is part of the new business model that will support journalism in the future."

Peck said the "ad" was sold with no expectation on the part of Boyle that it would influence content. And Boyle and the CA openly talked about this, Peck said.

"Amos Maki's Sunday 'Done Deals' column generates strong readership because Amos is a good reporter, and Boyle wants to advertise in a place where readership is high," Peck said.

Maki's byline wasn't on "Done Deals" the first week but it was the next week.

The slippery slope to sponsored news goes back at least a few years to "community journalism," which was a fancy way of saying that professional full-time reporters could be replaced by part-timers or volunteers submitting verbatim press releases, family snapshots, and bylined "articles" about community events involving neighbors, friends, and blood relatives.

The Commercial Appeal is one of 18 newspapers owned by the E.W. Scripps Company, based in Cincinnati. Scripps also owns ten broadcast television stations and such lifestyle networks as HGTV and Food Network.

The newspaper division of Scripps was already doing a pretty good job of monetizing content. According to the 2006 annual report, the division made a profit of $196 million on revenues of $717 million, for a profit margin of 27 percent. The company does not break out financials for individual newspapers, but the CA is one of its three largest publications.

The annual report begins with these words: "At Scripps, we're always evolving."

True, but not always for better as opposed to worse. 

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